Lucy Mulhall's life changed with an email. She hadn't asked for it, nor had she any idea it might be headed her way. She was a second-year radiation therapy student in Trinity College and she was an intercounty Gaelic footballer for Wicklow. These were not small interests, they were the stuff of life. Her life. And then she got an email from an IRFU development officer named Stan McDowell.
Would she be interested in trying out for the Ireland rugby sevens squad? It's rare in life to be asked something about which you genuinely know nothing, rarer still for you to find yourself thoroughly immersed in it within a short space of time. Lucy Mulhall is the captain of the Ireland women's rugby sevens team, yet it's less than two years since she was typing the phrase in her computer to find out what it might entail.
“It was surreal. When I first read the email, I wasn’t sure what it even was really. I went on the internet and started watching some YouTube footage of games. The more I read, the more I got enthralled by it all. I just came to totally respect what all these girls were doing and then said I’d give it a go.
“There’s a development officer as part of our set-up and he looks around for skilled players in different sports. He looks for a certain skill set within different sports and then invites players he thinks might be suited to come and join up and try out. In my case, I got an email inviting me in after he’d seen me play Gaelic football. I came in, did some fitness tests and some ball-handling and it went from there.
“It was a jump into the dark. You’re just playing away with Wicklow and your club and you don’t see an Olympics in your future. You don’t see wearing an Irish jersey in your future. This has come along and opened up a whole new future.
“I had never been into rugby at all. I’m into sport and I would have watched men’s rugby on the television but before I got this email, it was never something that crossed my mind. I don’t think I would ever have played it, I couldn’t honestly say that I would ever have taken it up as a sport until; this opportunity came up. And now I love it, now I’m engrossed in it.”
Mulhall is speaking from Dubai, where this morning she and her Ireland team begin the most hectic few months of their lives. Having qualified to become a core team in the World Series last summer, they will play tournaments in Dubai, Sao Paolo, Atlanta and Langford, Canada between now and next May.
While the World Series is a bread-and-butter tournament in its own right, there’s no ignoring the shimmering potential of the end-of-season tournament in June. The Olympic repechage tournament will be a cut-throat affair, with 16 countries competing for just one spot left to fill out the field in Rio.
Of the 12 teams in the World Series, nine have qualified for Rio (for England, see Team GB) – Ireland, Russia and Spain will be eyeing each other up with next June in mind. Mulhall’s team have been drawn against USA, Canada and Fiji today and will be heavyish underdogs against all three. But this is the start of the road, not the end of it.
"We can only look to perform to our ability and execute our gameplan to the best level we can find," says Alison Miller, one of three of this year's Six Nations-winning 15s players in the squad. "People won't know much about us coming into this series because we had to qualify for it last summer. Ourselves and Japan are coming in and we're not going to be on too many people's radar. So we know it's a step up in level but we relish that challenge and we look forward to playing the best teams in the world."
Miller and Mulhall are typical of a squad playing such a relatively new sport. Miller grew up in athletics and the team sports she played were football and basketball. Others came from hockey, others from 15-a-side rugby. The IRFU put a full-time programme in place in the summer of 2014 so that now they are a squad of centrally-contracted players, training together Monday to Friday and living in each other’s pockets for months on end.
“When you come in from other sports, you have different ways of seeing space,” says Miller. “You just come with different perspectives on how to create space and see space, different running lines, all of that. I think it’s a strength of ours because when you throw in the transferable skills from other sports, we have some very, very exciting players coming through.”
The pull of the Olympics is obviously strong but for now, Dubai is everything. Three games today and then they will be reclassified for three more tomorrow depending on how they do.
“It’s important for us because we weren’t on the World Series last year,” says Mulhall. “This year is a huge test but it’s where we want to be. We play rugby to play the best in the world. This is where they are. The Olympics are making all the difference to the sport and this is the year to get Ireland back on the map.”